Duquesne reflects on 6-0 start, Bahamas tourney championship
It had been 17 years since Duquesne won a tournament championship in men’s basketball, an idea in step with a longstanding perception winning doesn’t really matter on The Bluff.
Except, someone forgot to tell the Dukes, who are off to a 6-0 start after defeating a trio of teams at the Junkanoo Jam to come away from The Bahamas with a championship trophy Sunday in time for Thanksgiving.
“We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re making some progress,” Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot said Monday, a day after the Dukes demolished Loyola Marymount, 71-50, to claim the title in the Bimini Islands district.
Duquesne was so dominating against the Lions (2-4) that after spotting them a 12-0 lead, the Dukes roared back and led at halftime 28-26 before pulling away with an impressive 48-24 advantage in the second half, thanks to 8-for-15 shooting from 3-point range.
“It was a great experience for us,” Duquesne freshman Maceo Austin said. “It was a great tournament setting that gave us some time as a team to bond. We were able to get a lot of different looks from the teams we played.”
Duquesne sophomore Sincere Carry was named tournament MVP and was joined on the all-tournament team by junior Michael Hughes.
After opening the tournament Thursday by holding Indiana State scoreless over the final 1 minute, 26 seconds and coming from behind to beat the Sycamores, 74-70, Duquesne on Friday built a 22-point lead against Air Force and held on for a 69-63 victory before overcoming an early 12-point deficit Sunday against Loyola Marymount.
It is the first time since the 2007-08 season that Duquesne has started 6-0 and the first tournament championship for the Dukes since winning the 2002 FIU/Hampton Inn New Year’s Classic at Florida International in Miami.
“We’ve been talking as a team about how we have a chance to do something special here,” said Duquesne junior Tavian Dunn-Martin, who last season won the Atlantic 10 Conference Sixth Man of the Year Award. “It all starts in practice. Coach Dambrot is a perfectionist who insists that we get things right, especially on the defensive end. We’re starting to realize as a team just how important that is to our success.”
Dunn-Martin, a 5-foot-8 guard, played one season for Dambrot at Akron before transferring to Duquesne when Dambrot took over the Dukes in 2017.
“I have a saying I like to use: ‘Every play, every day,’ ” Dambrot said. “You simply can’t relax when you’re trying to get better as a team, and it drives me crazy when I see that.”
Maybe that’s been the root of Duquesne’s losing ways for years. If so, Dambrot hopes it’s in the past, even though he insists there’s still much room to grow.
In one of the longest droughts in Division I basketball, Duquesne hasn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 1977, a span of 41 years and counting. It’s been well documented, but under the current setting, the Dukes’ fortunes could be changing.
Other than a brief stretch when former coach Ron Everhart had a handful of successful years, nearly leading the Dukes into the national rankings before settling for an NIT bid in 2009, winning seasons have been a commodity at Duquesne.
But Dambrot appears to be on the road to finishing what Everhart started before the program was set back by Everhart’s controversial firing in 2012 and the subsequent hiring of former LIU-Brooklyn coach Jim Ferry, now an assistant at Penn State.
Ferry’s five-year record at Duquesne was 60-97, his best showing a 17-17 mark in 2016.
Dambrot’s teams have won 41 games since he was hired three years ago, including 19 last season.
“I turned down a number of schools to come to Duquesne,” said Austin, who helped District 10 Kennedy Catholic to four PIAA boys basketball championships and held scholarship offers from Penn State, Virginia, West Virginia and Xavier, among others. “I knew it was the right place for me.
“People were skeptical when I made my decision, but coach Dambrot is teaching us how to defend and how to play together as a team. He’s smart because he’s been coaching for a long time. Guys are buying into what he wants us to do.”
The loss of leading scorer and rebounder Eric Williams Jr., who transferred to Oregon, hasn’t appeared to hamper Duquesne in the early going this season.
“The more you win, the more you grow,” Dambrot said. “We’ve got better camaraderie, but we’re still trying to figure things out.”
They’ll have some extended time to get back into a routine before a Dec. 4 meeting with VMI at La Roche, one of three venues Duquesne is using for home games while its new facility, UPMC Chuck Cooper Fieldhouse, is being built.
The others are PPG Paints Arena and Robert Morris’ UPMC Events Center.
The Dukes also are scheduled to play several more neutral-site contests before the start of A-10 play — one each in Akron, Ohio, and Cleveland and a pair at the St. Pete Shootout in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Dave Mackall is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.